David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Turkey and Armenians still disputing ‘genocide’ 100 years later

An explanation of divergent views on events during World War I, when more than 1 million Armenians were killed

As the Ottoman Empire was collapsing during World War I, violence on a massive scale resulted in the deaths of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in a campaign of mass expulsion. The Armenian population in the empire before the war was about 2.1 million.

But how to categorize the events is a prickly issue for today’s Turkey. According to the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, more than 90 percent of Turks do not agree with the use of the term “genocide” to characterize the mass killing of Armenians. Their view hinges on the premise that the crimes were neither premeditated nor systematic, both of which are criteria for the legal definition of genocide.

Historical background

The historical context was the disintegration of the multiethnic, multireligious Ottoman Empire, which at its height spanned from the Middle East to the Balkans and North Africa, where minorities such as the Christian Armenians were granted extensive rights but not the same privileges as the Muslim majority.

The bulk of the Armenian community lived in eastern Anatolia. Some were considerably better off than their peasant neighbors, historians say, with many successful in professional fields, industry and trade. However, the majority of Armenians were poor and rural. The community was largely self-ruled as a millet-i sadıka, with minimal interference from Ottoman administrators, aside from a special jizya tax on religious minorities.

But starting at the end of the 19th century, periodic pogroms were carried out against Armenians, whose ancestral homeland straddles the Ottoman and Russian empires. Destruction of villages, religious sites and massacres took place with increasing regularity, leading eventually to what Armenians call the Great Calamity.

A regime headed by the Young Turk movement of military officers seized power from Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1913, dedicated to an agenda of modernization, secularism and Turkification.

The outbreak of World War I found the new government siding with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Britain, France and Russia, and nationalistic Turkish military leaders perceived Armenians as a fifth column aligned with Russia.

The ‘Great Calamity’

For Armenians, April 24, 1915, is Red Sunday, when Turkish forces began rounding up the community’s intellectual leaders in Istanbul before executing most of them months later near AnkaraIn a campaign of violence waged by the Special Organization, established to suppress separatism, that lasted until the end of the war, Armenian men were killed, women were raped, possessions were looted, and many were rounded up in a network of concentration camps. The extent of organization and official sanction of that violence remains a source of controversy.

The majority of those killed were from the cities of Sivas, Mush, Erzurum, Kayseri, Kharput and Adana. En masse, indigenous Armenians were disarmed, dispossessed and deported, often by Kurdish or Circassian soldiers. Death marches through the Syrian desert resulted in exhaustion and starvation. Mass burning, poisoning and drowning killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians. Many of these facts are disputed by Turkey, which cites 300,000 as the number of Armenians who died in ethnic fighting. Greek and Assyrian Christians were also targeted in ethnic cleansing campaigns.

Divergent views on victimhood

Eduard Sharmazanov, the vice president of Armenia’s National Assembly, has said the centennial this year “will herald a new phase in the fight for restoration of justice, which will be reinforced with new methods of struggle against denialism.” Among the ongoing battles is a symbolic court case at the European Court of Human Rights, where human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is representing the Armenian claims.

Last year, for the first time, Turkey’s government officially expressed condolences to the descendants of Ottoman Armenians killed a century ago, although it continues to vehemently reject any attempt to categorize those killings as genocide. Injustice experienced by the Armenians was not exceptional, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the time, when he was the prime minister. “It is a duty of humanity to acknowledge that Armenians remember the suffering experienced in that period, just like every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire,” he said.

A mural depicting the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, April 22, 2015.
Karen Minasyan/AFP

In a statement this year Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “We once again respectfully remember Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives during the deportation of 1915 and share the pain of their children and grandchildren.” But he denounced international pressure on Turkey to acknowledge the 1915 events as genocide, saying, "To reduce everything to a single word, to load all of the responsibility on the Turkish nation ... and to combine this with a discourse of hatred is legally and morally problematic.”

In Turkey it is a crime to brand the events of 1915 a genocide, and Article 301 of the penal code punishes people for up to three years in prison for offending the country or government. The law has been used to charge writer Orhan Pamuk and journalist Hrant Dink, later murdered, for denigrating the nation.

Serdar Kılıç, Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., said in a statement to Al Jazeera, “‘Genocide’ is a legal term in international law with a very precise meaning,” implying that the Armenian case is far from proven. “It describes a special intent to destroy all the members of a community only because they belong to that community.” He added that his government would support a joint reconciliation commission and any decision reached by an international tribunal that studied the wartime events. However, only a minute fraction of Turks believe their country should apologize

Recognition by 23 countries

Almost two dozen countries today use the term “genocide” to describe the 1915 killings, and Pope Francis caused a stir earlier this month when he called the mass killing of Armenians the first genocide of the 20th century. On April 15, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging Turkey to “recognize the Armenian genocide.” Greece and Cyprus are among the nations that criminalize Armenian-genocide denial; a similar bill in the French Parliament was withdrawn.

Foreign governments’ handling of the issue is often shaped by geopolitical calculations and their relationships with Turkey. Despite pressure in Congress, the U.S. has until now refrained from using the term “genocide” to describe the mass killing of Armenians.

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